Why I picked it up: The subtitle of this book is "why certain experiences have extraordinary impact." Or what our field (and other fields as well) calls "transformation." If museums are capable of these moments (and virtually all of us believe that to be so), than how do we optimize the experiences we share to trigger more of them? I've also read a couple of other books by the Heath brothers, and generally like their work.
My research to date that likely affects my read of this book: We are all interested in what makes museum experiences particularly meaningful, or at least stand out in some ways. In my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, I asked museum-goers to share with me stand-out or meaningful museum experiences, which I then painstakingly coded. Generally, what the Heath brothers write is in agreement with my findings.
What you need to know: What are the most memorable events in our lives? What makes them memorable? And how can we optimize the odds that the experiences we design for museums become defining moments?
For the authors, "defining moments" are our most memorable positive moments, the peaks (as well as, to be fair, the pits) of our lives.
They examined what they see as the four main components of those moments:
Elevation: an event that isn't normal, but out of our every-day lives. Includes elements of surprise, serendipity, and multiple senses. They focus on three types: transitions (e.g., weddings, first day of new jobs), milestones, and pits (negative moments). For museums, I think the "surprise" and "serendipity" types are crucial, especially since visiting a museum in and of itself is typically and out-of-our-every-day-lives moment.
They advise that to create moments of elevation, you need to boost sensory appeal, raise the stakes in some way, and break the script. Or, in other words, surprise people with a more multi-sensory, immersive experience that they don't expect, and make it feel random and serendipitous.
Insight: a change in our understanding of something. This is the type of moments that museums excel at, because they are moments of realization and changed thinking. They happen when a visitor learns something surprising, or connects what had seemed to be two disparate things. These moments also often feel serendipitous, because they are not expected.
These moments also occur when a visitor learns the depths of something that is troubling, difficult, or worse than tragic. When they "trip over the truth." An example that came to mind for me is the inherent privilege of whites in society. Whites often cannot see their own privilege because it is so ingrained, but if they are forced to trip over the truth, and see how it is often at the expense of others, would that create any change in our society? How can museums enable that realization, while also promoting positive action? But the Heath brothers point out to do this, we cannot share our feelings or insight, but create a situation where the visitor comes to the same conclusion, and thus takes ownership of it. That means not telling a white visitor they are privileged, but instead installing a cognitive trip wire so that they figure it out on their own.
Pride: moments of achievement or courage. While we can create ways of doing this in museums (such as youth art shows, or science competitions), the things I considered while reading the book had mostly to do with engaging staff more effectively to improve productivity, creativity, attitudes, and well-being. So if your museum needs to shift the culture among staff, this book has lots of ideas … especially in terms of pride.
Connection: milestone moments we share with family and friends, which connect us to each other. So think of shared experiences. Museums do a pretty great job at shared experiences with family members, such as parent-child experiences. But this section had me thinking more about how shared experiences can help communities, giving people a shared purpose to effect change. To do this, according to the Heath brothers, we have to provide understanding, validation, and caring. Does your staff do that? Do your exhibitions signal these things?
The overall conclusion of the book is that real meaning making isn't just a serendipitous realization (though it often feels that way), but a jolting into action. And here is where I think museums struggle. We're pretty good with the realization part, but not the action. Perhaps, then, it isn't surprising that I deeply appreciated what I think of as the "call to action" room at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
But ultimately, defining moments are magic, and the good news is that museums inherently create these moments all the time. Visiting a museum is already an outside the day-to-day experience, and is optimized for serendipity and meaning making. But that doesn't mean we couldn't optimize it even more, thus creating even greater impact, greater fulfillment of mission, higher engagement with museums over a lifetime, and better connection between realization and action.
My stumbling block with this book (which I otherwise thought was great): One of the points they make is that most of the defining moments in our lives are clustered in our teens and twenties. Well, sure, because that time frame includes many big moments of separation from our childhood lives, maturing into adulthood (and all of those responsibilities), and perhaps becoming a parent. But I thought the Heath brothers failed to clearly pick apart the two types of defining moments.
Let me explain. Joseph Walters and Howard Gardner examined what they called "crystallizing experiences" back in the 80s, and they differentiated between "initial" and "refining" moments. An "initial" moment are those big moments of life, those moments that mark a big transition, that fill you with big awe and wonder, or a sucker-punch to the gut of insight. These moments, in museums, are what we tend to talk about and aim for. But aside from young children, they are not that typical, and you can't force them.
But "refining" moments. Wow, my research is replete with them. They are little moments of insight, connection, revelation. The "I didn't realize" moments. Or, "I didn't know that!" They build on each other in meaningful ways, they feel serendipitous, and they positively reinforce the behavior that creates them (the dopamine hit they create may have something to do with this). Museums excel at these "oh!" moments, and they are vital to the extraordinary impact we have had in the lives of some museum-goers. This is where there is a great deal of opportunity to deepen meaning-making in museums.
The Heath brothers lump these all together, and I think that is a mistake. Because while initial moments are amazing, in museums they are unpredictable, difficult to create, and likely resource-heavy. In contrast, refining moments are easier to plan, easier to optimize, and bring museum-goers back, over and over, ultimately effecting deeper impact.
Read or skip? I have to look at this two ways:
Full citation: Heath, Chip, and Heath, Dan. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I love infographics. I wish I could present all my research via infographics.
Sadly, I'm not that talented (though I am pretty proud of my Data Stories and work with a fantastic graphic designer to make my ugly sketches into beautiful reality).
But I do try to look at how others present data, and sometimes, when I'm lucky, something clicks and I figure out a better way of presenting my research to you.
With this post, I'll start sharing some of my favorite (and not-so-favorite) inspiration sources for infographics. Short reviews of books (below are three to start) and, from time to time, specific infographics I run across that I think are fabulous for some reason or other.
I have three goals here:
1 - to help you gain a better appreciation of infographics, because if the story it is trying to tell is beautifully clear, you can be sure that a lot of hard work went into it;
2 - to help train your eye and mind to consider the infographic medium as one that museums could make far better use of in exhibitions; and
3 - to have fun with this, because I find joy in a beautiful in finding new meaning in data, and infographics are a fun way of gaining those insights. I know, I'm weird.
Now, three quick reviews.
1 - The Best American Infographics. My favorite source. This yearbook, edited by Gareth Cook, brings together infographics from across many media, all in one handy book. Yearly. The styles vary widely, and the quantity of data presented also vary widely. For these reasons, when I am struggling to visualize something, I pick these books up first. Citation: Cook, Gareth (ed.). The Best American Infographics. New York: Mariner Books, 2013 - 2016.
2 - Knowledge is Beautiful. All of the infographics in this book are by the author, David McCandless. He does a great job of creating data-rich graphics in ways that are fairly easy to process. I don't tend to pack so many data points in my infographics as he does, but when I need to, this is the book I flip through to think about the best way of presenting it clearly. Citation: McCandless, David. Knowledge is Beautiful. New York: Harper Design, 2014.
3 - Dear Data. I had high hopes for this book. Two graphic designers pick a topic a week for a year, collect data, then visually present it to each other via postcard. As a concept, great. As an inspiration book, not so much. They tried to do too much in their infographics, and trying to decipher them was simply too much work. No inspiration here. Still, a cool project. Skip. Citation: Lupi, Giorgia, and Posavec, Stefanie. Dear Data. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2016.
If you come across an infographic you think works particularly well, send it my way at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com!
Why I picked it up: A few years ago, when I visited the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, there was a moment when I stopped to enjoy the sunlight. And then I realized I was in a science museum, and I was enjoying the sunlight. I loved visiting that museum, I stayed a long time, and I found the exhibitions more memorable than typical.
You see, I have a pet peeve. What I call "black caves." Those yawning exhibition spaces, typically painted black, with no natural light whatsoever. They are particularly prevalent in science centers and museums. And they have always confounded me. I find them oppressive. But it has also always seemed odd that science centers, which typically have no collections, are so dark while art museums are typically filled with light.
Which brings me to Welcome to Your World. A review of this book in The Nation queried "what is the science behind how we experience architecture?" That piqued my interest, not only because of my experience in North Carolina, but also because museum-goers sometimes share with me their emotional and physical responses to museum buildings and spaces.
Main thesis of book: More than 90% of our time is spent in human-made spaces, and "[design shapes] our cognitions, emotions, and actions, and even powerfully influences our well-being." Thus, it is incumbent on all of us to make sure our built environments support human welfare as a health and well-being issue. This seems pretty obvious to me, to design for people (it's my attitude towards museums, after all).
Fun fact: There is an Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. Who knew?
Three most important takeaways:
Read or skip: Here's a sample sentence: "Carefully devised, skillfully deployed metaphors mitigate the build environment's stasis and our tendency to habituate to it, through the many overlapping associations they elicit." If this sentence excites you, this book is for you. If it makes your eyes roll back in your head, well, consider my review sufficient.
But if you are considering a new building or a remodeling, and you truly care about how visitors (and your staff) will respond in the new space you are creating, the book may be worth picking up and reading.
Full citation: Goldhagen, Sarah Williams. Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
What is it: Forced From Home is a traveling exhibition created by Doctors Without Borders (MSF, for their legal name, Médecins Sans Frontières) to raise awareness about refugees.
Why I went: I had a lot of questions about this exhibition before I even went with a group of museum friends. Why would a humanitarian organization decide that it was part of their mission to create an exhibition on refugees and tour it around the United States? Is that a good use of their resources? Shouldn't those resources go to help others? Or is there a long-game that they are playing? Do they think that what is, essentially, a museum exhibition, is useful and efficient for continuing their work? If so, how and why?
Quick description of exhibition: I'll be honest. The exhibit itself was solid, but nothing special. A short introductory movie (good), and then several exhibits that essentially took you through a general refugee journey: unexpectedly leaving home; the journey; legal status; refugee camps; medical care at camps; and ending with VR videos. It was logically laid out, and had what my friend Rainey Tisdale referred to as the "material culture" of refugees: refugee tents, a latrine, water jugs, etc. Most powerfully, they had a small raft that many in our group "boarded;" we then learned that typically 40 refugees would cram onto a raft of that size … for a week. Gulp.
But the exhibition, except for the raft, was very generic. It was not the story of Syrian refugees, or Honduran, but instead a generic stage set. This was likely by design, because you cannot visit the exhibition on your own. An MSF fieldworker provides a guided tour of the exhibition. This makes the exhibition personal through that fieldworker's own experiences and stories, which can happen anywhere in the world.
MSF's big goal - empowered empathy: For the exhibition to work, that fieldworker/guide is key. Our guide told his stories, putting a human face on what we read about in the media. He wielded the ability to make it emotional. He bore witness, which is, to my surprise, part of the MSF charter:
"We may seek to bring attention to extreme need and unacceptable suffering when access to lifesaving medical care is hindered, when medical facilities come under threat, when crises are neglected, or when the provision of aid is inadequate or abused."
If I had to boil down the exhibition's goal to just a few words, I would say "empowered empathy." Let's pick apart why that is, and why I think they only succeeded at meeting half the goal.
Empathy. As our guide said, "no one ever wakes up and says they want to become a refugee." It is forced on them. It is a trauma inflicted on them. The guides tell specific, personal stories so we can connect to refugees as people, not statistics. That's why the drowning of three-year-old Alan Kurdi last summer viscerally hit so many of us. Or why the impassive face of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh in Syria was so searing and shocking for us. By bearing witness with their own stories, the guides put a human face on the millions of refugees around the world, and we feel empathy and compassion. That is a mission as worthy as caring for those in need, because without bearing witness, how would the rest of the world know enough to understand or care?
Note, however, that the guide is what made engendering empathy possible. The material culture of refugees that was shared in the exhibition only served to support what was said. Normally, I am opposed to guided tours as a forced march, but this was different. I struggled with why until Rainey observed that "… he was a different kind of docent … chosen based on the life stories and deep knowledge [he] can share, not whether [he was] available to volunteer regularly …" Rainey raised a good point. While a guide at a museum may be committed, and genuinely care about what they are sharing, the interpretation generally doesn't come from lived life experience. They are one or more degrees removed from the content. Not the case for our guide at the MSF exhibition. It was real.
That realness also made another friend, Matt Kirchman of ObjectIDEA, reflect on what it means to financially support MSF. He shared that if he were to do so, "I’m helping people help people. The exhibit experience does not emphasize the largeness of the agency, rather, the close and personal attention of the people in the field." Or, rather, compassion translated to action.
Empowered. Clearly, by bearing witness, MSF wants us to do something about it … to empower us. But here I felt they fell short. I came out feeling far more knowledgeable about the refugee crisis, but did not feel I had gained new information to do anything about it. I wanted them to be more proactive and forceful. To specifically tell us how we could help. Not necessarily a strict fundraising ploy, but specific ways to educate ourselves further, advocate for and support refugees, and yes, give financially. Instead, the experience ended rather abruptly, and fell short in helping us, as participants, follow through with action. (Though to be fair, I am already a donor to MSF, so I didn't stop at their donation table at the end. Yet I wonder how many people did stop.)
So what does MSF get out of this? Bearing witness is part of their charter, but that is only meaningful if creates change. Does this exhibit do that? That is not so clear. In Boston, the primary audience seemed to be groups of students from area high schools. Short-term, the outcomes are likely to not be meaningful for that audience base.
If the long-game is their goal, however, I suspect it may reach enough youth to effect some change in perspective in enough of them to matter. If I were running the exhibition, I'd do something to capture visitor contact information (no, they didn't even do that for any kind of follow-up). Then I'd reach out to all visitors (students and other adult visitors) a year from now and ask about the experience. True, not many would respond, but enough would to capture the exhibition's capacity to change people. Or to find out that if this isn't the most effective way of reaching people after all.
Politics: An exhibition on refugees could have easily gone political. Especially given events in Mosul over the past week and the bulldozing of "the Jungle" in Calais. It is a hot, political topic globally. Yet MSF managed to avoid politics completely. Instead, it was about witnessing and presenting a human story. In some ways, despite emotional content being presented, it was presented neutrally. That is an impressive feat, and one that museums could model instead of their general tendency to avoid these topics altogether.
Should you go? Yes, absolutely. It is in Pittsburgh now, and headed to Philadelphia soon. MSF plans to take a few months off and start up again on the West Coast (so they told me). When they reach Seattle, I plan to volunteer so I can learn more about how people actually responded to the exhibition … and because I support MSF.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com. (Note: I don't intend to regularly review exhibitions; this was an exception because of how this exhibition originated.)